Monday, May 30, 2011

Mindfulness of Suffering

            I’ve struggled this weekend with a vast collection of emotions.  I believe everyone does this, but it’s another thing entirely to have an honest process with them.  I am not perfect at doing that, far from it.  I hide from suffering, as we all do.  In drink, in movies, books, sleep, a hundred other distractions.
            But at moments in the very difficult times, I also bring my training in mindfulness into play.  The thoughts come so fast, they are difficult to see sometimes, and when I don’t see them, then the feelings that follow are often a mystery; why is that particular feeling there, now?  The thoughts are a stream, they are driven, and a part of Self doesn’t know the difference between my dark imaginings and what is really happening.
            With perseverance, with kindness for myself, I bring my attention to bear on just the feelings.  What is the feeling that is hard, right now, in my body?  I check, and find a huge, hot presence in my chest.  It is almost sitting on me, it’s so dense.  It is also threatening, pushing its presence into my face, a thing I don’t want, a thing that scares me.  I watch, with all the equanimity I can bring to the process.  I just watch, with bare attention.  And the heat and weight subside somewhat.
            What are the thoughts that bring this terrible weight to me?  I watch the thoughts run past my point of attention, without answering any particular one, just greeting each one and letting is pass by.  Some of them are quite surprising: I’m old, I’m unattractive, no one is interested in me.
            All of these things I know to be untrue, and as I witness the thoughts, they slow down, and they become somewhat more realistic, somewhat more moderate.  Most of them are based on fear, on old habits of fear, based on things that happened long ago, or worse, things that did not happen.  As I watch, just watch, the feelings, the fear, the suffering, abate somewhat.
            I come away from the process feeling some relief, but more importantly, feeling like I want to do things that will make me feel better.  I want to go for a walk, eat something good, call a friend.  I want to proceed into the next moment and the next, to greet each one and experience it without reference to what was or what may be.  It’s difficult to focus on the now, when now is not very pleasant.  I feel an urge to rush through this unpleasant moment, to get past it, to get to something better.
            But doing that only increases the lack of attention.  Without attention, the thoughts flow unconsciously again, and then the pain increases.  The only real solution is to sit with what is, with courage, to greet it and watch it go by.
            There is still a huge, hot presence in my chest, a terrible weight.  But now the river path calls to me.  Just the walking will be good.  Then maybe a talk with a trusted friend.  Eventually, the Good World will return to me, and it will seem as if it had never been gone, but rather that I had gone away from it.
            That’s how it always is.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Teaching Exchange

            The patio at the pub is drenched in sunshine, and I’m enjoying a summery pint, basking in the weather, and in the feel of day’s work well done.  Brittney is on her way to meet me.
            What I don’t know, yet, is that life is about to hand me one of those magical interludes, where something completely unexpected and very wonderful happens.  When Brittney arrives, there are other friends with her, some I know, some I don’t.  We chat over beers, and inevitably, juggling breaks out.  By now, it’s become a natural part of our semi-planned gatherings.
            When I sit down to take a break, Emily, who I just met says something about wanting so badly to juggle, but she was never able to learn.  I can teach you, I say, I’ve taught lots of people.  I’m thinking sometime, but she wants to learn now, right now.
            We start with the basics.  I instruct her in making nice, round throws, about chin high, and I talk about the timing, giving her my basic, “you have more time than you think you do” speech.
            She’s picking it up quickly, and before you know it, she’s gotten her first three-ball sequence of throws and catches.  There is an expansive feeling when that is first experienced, a feeling of freedom, an exhilarating release and expansion that is unparalleled.  When she feels it, I see it in her face, and it takes me back to the first time I experienced it.
            And in an instant, I realize I’m having one of those moments of connection with another person, a moment that was unconscious, lived purely in the moment.  I notice, then fall quickly back into the raw experience.  Emily is hooked, well and truly!  She throws the balls again and again, reveling in each successive increase in her sequences.  When she drops them, she almost pounces on them, as if she can’t wait to get started again.
            I know the feeling well.  I’m also familiar with the smile that has come to dominate her face in the last twenty minutes. 
            I have laundry to do, and it’s getting late, so I make my goodbyes.  I thank Emily, and I can tell she thinks that is backwards.  She hands the balls to me, and there is a hint of disappointment in the gesture, of reluctance.  I push them back toward her.  Keep going I say, enjoy.  Leave them up front when you go, I’m here all the time, I’ll get ‘em tomorrow.
            When I leave, she is immersed, in sequence, color, motion.  And she’s still wearing that huge, unself-conscious smile.  That smile comes on by itself, a smile that is a direct result of a moment purely had, without distraction, without evaluation.
            A moment of perfect, mindful living.
            At the library the phone rings.  Faliesha didn’t know I’d left, and she’s disappointed she missed me.  I stop by the pub on the way back to the car, to see her.  And as I step out onto the patio, there is Emily, an hour later. The huge smile is still there.
            She’s juggling.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

            Driving down sixth street this morning on my way into town, a jet airplane passes overhead, on approach to Eugene airport.  The sound is one of those sounds that locates me in my world.  As it recedes, I realize I know this sound in many nuances; I could tell you if the airplane is taking off or landing, whether it’s commercial or military, whether it’s driven by a propeller or a jet engine.
            Other sounds and smells are like this too, a backdrop of the world I’ve lived my life in.  There’s the sound of a Volkswagen engine, for example, which is instantly recognizable to me.  There’s the sound of a bicycle chain humming through its gear teeth, the sound of a computer disc drive, the sound of pen on paper, the sound of pages turning in a book, and the sound of an espresso machine.
            Some of these sounds would be unknown to a citizen of another century.  Some of the sounds and smells I grew up with are not well known now, like the hiss of a wick burning in an oil lamp, or the sound of reins on a horse’s back, or the creak of a wagon wheel.  These are sounds I barely knew, at the beginning of my life, and then they were gone.
            I imagine that other sounds are timeless.  These sounds could connect me to a person from any age, if I had the great good luck to be able to travel to another time.  Or if someone from many centuries ago came here, I could assure him that this was still a human world, in spite of all the strange machines.  I could reassure him by frying food in a skillet, treating him to the sounds and smells of a meal being prepared.  I could take him to a pub, where he would hear people talking and laughing and making music.
            We could walk down a deserted path in a park on a quiet afternoon, and the sound of his footsteps on the pavement would be the same, even if he was from Sumeria, six thousand years ago.  I could sit on the ground at the edge of a high meadow, next to a hunter-gatherer from 17,000 years ago, share an apple with him.  And for that moment when we were sharing food, the gulf of time and culture between us would mean nothing.
            At the parking garage, I wave the keycard at the little red light.  It beeps electronically, another sound that’s come to define my world.  The tires squeak on the concrete.  I reach forward, touch a button to silence the radio announcer.  When I step out of the car, I can hear wind blowing through leaves, and the voices of people talking as they walk to the market.  It’s a hodgepodge of sounds, some just here/now, others that have been with us as long as there have been people.
            Every sensory experience comes to us with depth, a collection of applied and acquired meanings.  We can travel on them, to far times and places.  And we can also come back, on them, to the unqualified moment of now.  We can let go of the layers of meaning one by one, just allow them to fall away, until only the sensory event itself is left.
            And then, we are just here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mindful Mindlessness

                My little town is having a brewfest this weekend.  This is most certainly not an exercise in mindfulness.  There are over a hundred beers available for sampling, made by the finest craft brewers in five states. People are dressed in their best, seeing and being seen, and the music is an almost tangible presence in the huge, dark room at the Hilton hotel.
There are lots of people here I know, and it’s easy to meet the ones I don’t.  There is also an unspoken permission here to just let go and have fun.  Near the music stage, there’s a mass of humanity, moving to the music.  They move like a school of fish, all together.  You can step into it at any time, and become a part of the movement, lose yourself, come back out, talk, go outside, come back in.
            And the collective presence of all those people welcomes you.  This kind of letting go is a kind healing in itself, I’ve come to believe.  If you give yourself to a setting like this, all the pieces of yourself that make you struggle fall away for a time.  In effect, you get to take a rest from being you, and that can be a very restful thing indeed.
            Or maybe what’s really happening is that we are unreservedly ourselves in a setting like this.  However you decide to think about it, it leaves you with a sense of renewal.  Connections with people you know are celebrated and deepened, and new ones can be made.
            Now the music has shuddered to a halt and the event organizer is on stage with the musician, thanking everyone and making last call.  The lights come up a little, people gather their souvenir glasses and start to talk about rides and stay-overs.
            Outside, the air is fresh and the streets are empty.  And now I can come to mindfulness.  Mindfulness of this moment in my life when I feel like I’m at home in the world.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Patio Time

                I’m back in Eugene after an overnight work trip.  What a sweet place to come home to, this little town I’ve chosen for my own.  At the office, I’m greeted by smiling faces that seem happy to see me.  I guess it’s true what they say about absence and fondness.
                About three o’clock, I feel like I cannot possibly read another policy statement without becoming completely, gibbering mad.  A river of sunshine is landing on me from my office window.  It is liquid heat, and it makes me think of the patio at the pub.  The little tables, the hop vines that are starting to crawl up their support strings, the green and white awning that rides above the whole scene.
                And a cold beer, and my juggling balls.  And a lovely friend to talk to.
Yes, it’s there, just the way I left it, waiting for me like an old friend.  And the set of three balls is in my hands, and they are flying.  Change up the patterns, vary the timing, stop, take a sip of the cold bitter.  A hint of summery juniper assaults the tip of my tongue.
                And back to the throwing.  The balls move in constantly changing patterns, my hands feel happy, my whole mind is engaged.  And a tiny part of me stands back and watches and notices that I’m creating something beautiful.
                Then my friend is there.   The only thing better than the patio, a beer and juggling is sharing that with someone else.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mindfulness of Juggling

                This is a great day for juggling.  I’m well rested and the weather is perfect.  I can’t wait to get started and work on some of the new patterns I’ve been learning.  The market is intensely crowded, so I wander over Skinner butte to the river park.  There’s always a nice patch of grass there to stand on.  There are also people about, which is good, because I love having an audience.
                Before I start, I sit by the river for a moment and follow my breath.  It’s so easy to slip into a mindful state, anywhere, anytime.  In the past few months, I’ve been returning to this awareness, and it’s been very gracious for me.  The moments build on themselves, and it occurs to me more and more often to sit.  As my attention settles on the breath, I see a river of thought passing by me, as frothy and noisy as the wide, muddy Willamette a few yards away.
                It’s a little humbling, this torrent of petty thoughts washing through me, second by second.  But the power, and the peace, lies in the fact that I am now sitting on the bank watching it, instead of swimming in it.  And so, the healing and the expansion begin, they continue.
                Still feeling pretty still, I get up and walk to the little patch of grass where I usually juggle.  It’s a nice spot, with kids going by all the time.  No one seems to notice me for awhile, but experience has taught me that people are almost always watching, they just don’t say anything.  And sure enough, when I look around me, I see people looking my way.
                Soon there are a few kids standing by, and some of them want to learn.  So I give some lessons.  Next the moms are over, chatting and telling their kids to say please and thank you.
                What fun.
                I’m reminded, once again, that when I’m in the right frame of mind, there’s no such thing as a stranger.  And juggling is a great ice-breaker.
                The new patterns are a little more polished now, a little smoother.  I pack up my props in my little blue shoulder bag and head over the hill, with the sun warm on my back.